Philosophy and the Liberal Arts

Philosophy and the Liberal Arts is the title of a page from a book called the Hortus deliciarum (Garden of delights). It was written by a remarkable woman known as Herrad of Landsberg, Abbess of Hohenburg, around 1167 to 1185. Herrad produced the book with a group of nuns, scribes, scholars, and teachers who intended the illuminated manuscript to be a teaching tool for the women joining their learning community. Together they produced perhaps the most famous image of Liberal Arts Education: Philosophy with the Seven Liberal Arts.

I myself, the little bee, composed this book titled Garden of Delights, and drew from the sap of the diverse flowers of Holy Scripture and from philosophical works …

I urge you to study this book often and seek the sweet fruit it contains, to refresh your tired spirit by the drops of its honey so that, nourished by its spiritual sweetness, you would be able to confront without danger the transient things of this world

Herrad of Landsberg

Philosophy with the Seven Liberal Arts

Philosophy with the Seven Liberal Arts is an image from an illuminated manuscript produced in the 1100's.
Plate VIII Philosophie mit den sieben freien Künsten from the collections at University Library Johann Christian Senckenberg / The Johannes Gutenberg University. Philosophy with the seven liberal Arts from the Hortus Deliciarum. Note the signatures bottom left and right: C. M. Engelhardt, Willemin.

In this post we will be reading from a text which describes the image Philosophy with the Seven Liberal Arts taken from from page 36 of the Hortus Deliciarum (1977) by Straub and Keller.


In looking at this beautiful composition, one would say that he has before him the working model of a stained-glass artist for a rose window on the facade of one of our old twelfth century cathedrals, like the wheel of fortune at Bale, whose frame bears a striking resemblance to the frame of our subject.

In the center, Philosophy is enthroned as queen, her forehead encircled by a golden crown from which three human heads emerge, designated by the words etica, logica, phisica. Socrates and Plato are seated at her feet and carefully note down her words. On a long scroll, the middle of which is held at her breast, we read: “all wisdom comes from God. Only the wise can do what they will.” Seven streams of living water flow from Philosophy; they are the liberal arts “with the Holy Spirit as their origin.” Representations of them encircle the noble lady under many round arches, separated one from the other by Roman columns, the capitals of which are adorned with foliage or grimacing masks. These arts are ever at her orders in the supreme direction she exerts over the trivium and the quadrivium of profane studies, as expressed by the words inscribed in the circle that frames Philosophy: + arte regens omnia quae sunt ego philosophia subjectas artes in septem divido partes.

At the top we see Grammar, her head covered by a white veil, under which appears the Byzantine coiffure described earlier. She is garbed, as is each of her companions, in a tunic with tight-fitting sleeves and in a bliau or long garment fitted at the waist. The sleeves tight to mid-arm, open into draperies which extend to just below the knees. She is armed with the rod—scope—symbol of the strict discipline that must be maintained over the lowly students; in the other hand she holds a book, whose cover is adorned with precious stones. The following inscription appears in the arch under which she stands: Per me quivis discit, vox, littera, syllaba quid sit.

Moving towards the right of the viewer: Rhetoric, equipped with a stylus and two tablets coated with black wax, to indicate the care that she recommends to the orator in preparing his discourses, each section of which must undergo close scrutiny and may require numerous revisions: causarum vires per me, alme rhetor, requires.

Dialectic, in lively discussion as indicated by the gesture of her right hand. In her left she holds the head of a barking dog, symbol of the unending shouts provoked by disputation and of the vigilance with which the disputant follows the reasoning of the adversary: argumenta sino concurrere more canino.

Music, playing an instrument in the shape of a harp, but which the inscription calls cithara; next to her is a hand organ labelled organistrum and a lira, which today would probably be called rubebe: Musica sum late doctrix artis variate.

Arithmetic, counting on a semi-circular rod onto which are threaded twenty-two black balls. numeris consto, quorum discrimina monstro.

Geometry, standing a compass on the ground, circulus, and holding a long surveying rod: terrae mensuras per multas dirigo curas.

Astronomy, her eyes raised towards heaven, as she studies the stars. She holds in one hand a closed box or, according to Rev. Ch. Cahier, a bushel, “because we associate meteorology with her as the directress of agricultural labors: ex astris nomen traho per quae discitur omen.

All these representations are enclosed in a wide circle which bears the following inscription:

Hec exercicia que mvndi philosophia investigavit · investigata notavit · scripto firmavit et alvmnis insinvavit.
Septem per studia docet artes philosophia · hec elementorum scrvtatvr et abdita rervm.

Though full of admiration for the philosophers of ancient pagan times, “the scholars of the world and the clerics of former ages,” Herrad is only horrified at poets and magicians, “inspired by the unclean spirit.” She therefore excludes them from this magnificent pictured rose. They are shown at the bottom of the page, deep in their dreams or writing in a book the false pedantries which the spirit of evil, in the form of a black and unsightly winged creature, tries to whisper into their ears. Isti immundis spiritibus inspirati scribunt artem magicam et poetriam, fabulosa commenta. We note the shape of the writing desk or fixed scriptore, which could also be used as a lectern. Both the poets and the philosophers are provided with the primitive horn-shaped inkpot sunk into the desk. Besides a reed or pen, the persons writing hold penknives with black handles.

To these sinister agents of the evil spirit, as Herrad considers them, the Abbess attaches different kinds of idolatry which she develops in a series of very animated scenes, numbering four, if our memory is correct.


The original manuscript was destroyed in a fire so the text and imagery above is drawn from various sources and includes a version of the Hortus Deliciarum by the Caratzas Brothers who reproduced a version of the Hortus in 1977, seen below.

The Hortus produced by the Caratzas Brothers is a reproduction of work done by Canons A. Straub and G. Keller between 1879-1899 and first published in Strasbourg in 1901.

However the work of Straub and Keller builds upon the extraordinary work of Christian Maurice Engelhardt aka Christian Moritz Engelhardt who produced tracings, illustrations, and colourings of the original manuscript which he sent to the printmaker Nicolas Xavier Willemin who printed a version of the Hortus in 1818 by engraving copper plates. A subtle difference exists in the direct translation of the titles of this version. From the German, Philosophie mit den sieben freien Künsten, we get Philosophy with the seven liberal Arts.

Philosophy and the Liberal Arts or  Philosophie mit den sieben freien Künsten shows the liberal arts as muses surrounding a Queen called Philosophy.
Plate VIII facsimile from the “Special collections” of Heidelberg University Library by Christian Moritz Engelhardt

And so we finally arrive at that page from the plates first published in 1818 which looks like this in the manuscript.

Philosophy and the Liberal Arts or La Philosophie dans l’Hortus Deliciarum de Herrade de Landsberg is colourful circular image of the seven liberal arts shown as muses surrounding philosophy as a Queen with Socrates and Plato.
Plate VIII La Philosophie dans l’Hortus Deliciarum de Herrade de Landsberg via Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and its partners.

Now we have traced some of the sources of the images the important thing to remember is that the original author, Herrad of Landsberg, created the manuscript for pedagogical reasons. Her encyclopedia (enkuklios paideia – complete education/circle of learning) was intended as an aide to teaching. Philosophy with the Seven Liberal Arts made up the formalised curriculum of the Trivium and Quadrivium.

What can be easy to forget when studying the liberal arts is their shared first principle. The three figures at the centre of the image represent that principle through their relation to each other. While Philosophy with the Seven Liberal Arts might frame Philosophy at the centre as Queen, the Queen rests upon the educative relation between Socrates and Plato. Presented to us in a process of teaching and learning Socrates and Plato express the experience that forms the foundations of philosophy and brings about that love of wisdom.

Philosophy holds a banner reading “All wisdom comes from God, only the wise can achieve what they desire”
At the foot of philosophy are seated before desks two men: Socrates and Plato. They sit on a bench with philo-so-phi written on it. The text surrounding the two philosophers tells us that philosophers first taught ethics, then physics, then rhetoric; they were the true sages of the world and the teachers of the people; and their task was to scrutinise the profound nature of all things.

For more on the image Philosophy and the Liberal Arts try:

Liberal Arts Education by and for Women